Published February 07. 2014 4:00AM
In his State of the State Address Thursday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy set out the case for his re-election, providing a reminder that he is a gifted politician and serving notice to his future Republican challenger - and there are several vying for the opportunity - that he is prepared to defend his first-term record.
Of course, the official business of the day was to provide an update on the status of Connecticut and release the adjustments the Democrat plans in the second year of the two-year spending plan. Gov. Malloy has not even formally announced his candidacy.
However, in summarizing his accomplishments in working with a Democratic legislature, and offering a view of his priorities going forward, Gov. Malloy made it clear he is readying for the fight.
Once again he trotted out the problems created during the term of his Republican predecessor (assisted by a Democratic majority) - $1 billion borrowed to pay for operating expenses; expending the $1.4 billion Rainy Day Fund; deferring $300 million in state pension plan payments - resulting in the $3.6 billion deficit he inherited upon his arrival in office 2011.
"Today after a lot of tough decisions and strong leadership from many people in this chamber, we've come a long way," said the governor. "Together we've turned a $3.6 billion deficit into a $500 million surplus."
Democratic lawmakers appeared energized, frequently interrupting the speech with applause.
There was no mention that it took a record tax increase to help close that gap. Instead, Gov. Malloy talked of his plan for a $110 tax rebate for families, $55 for individuals.
Left unsaid, too, was the ephemeral nature of the surplus, driven by income tax revenues generated by an extraordinary year for Wall Street, or that post-election projections show deficit challenges returning, albeit not as dire as in the recent past.
The truth is that the state fiscal situation has improved significantly during the Malloy administration. The argument that the repair was too dependent on higher taxes - as this newspaper believes - and that it produced a drag on the economy, will be a tough argument for critics to make when Gov. Malloy can point to a surplus and lowering unemployment.
An unemployment rate that reached 9.4 percent in 2010 now stands at 7.4 percent, with 40,000 new private sector jobs added over the past three years. Gov. Malloy defended his philosophy of direct government investment to assist business growth, particularly the Small Business Express program that has allocated $115 million in low-interest loans and state grants to hundreds of small businesses, creating and maintaining, by the administration's count, 13,800 jobs.
There is evidence that at least some of the grant applications did not get the scrutiny they should have and that many of the jobs created are low-paying. But making political hay from that will be difficult for Republicans, particularly when only one Republican in the House and one in the Senate opposed the program's creation.
After getting an education reform bill approved in 2012, Gov. Malloy called for continuing investment in education. Calling it the "civil rights issue of our time," the governor set a goal of universal public pre-Kindergarten education. Toward that goal, pre-K spending would grow from $11.5 million in 2015 to $51.1 million in 2019, according to numbers released by the administration.
Burnishing his "education governor" credentials, Gov. Malloy also rolled out proposals to help parents save for college, improve the ability for students to earn college credits in high school, and provide incentives for dropouts to return to college to obtain their degrees.
These proposals come even as the original reform effort faces challenges. Democratic leaders - confronting criticism from teachers and administrators - recently agreed to slow down the rollout of teacher evaluations, meant to measure success in implementing "Common Core" educational standards.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, who is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Gov. Malloy, this week called for the resignation of Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, calling his education reform rollout "a failure."
In his address, Gov. Malloy responded, if indirectly, repeating a theme likely to be heard in the coming campaign.
"We hear plenty of critics now, even as sunshine begins to break through the clouds, there are some intent on hoping for thunderstorms," said Gov. Malloy. "We should not listen, Connecticut is moving forward."
That is the challenge the future Republican candidate will need to meet if there is to be a healthy 2014 gubernatorial debate - pointing out the problems with the Malloy agenda, while also offering optimism for the future. The incumbent will not make it easy.